Late last month in Saudi Arabia, tens of thousands of people marched in a funeral for two activists killed by the police. “Death to Al Saud,” they chanted in what was perhaps the largest demonstration in a protest movement that began in January 2011, when a 65-year-old man self-immolated. While most protests have taken place in the Shiite areas of Eastern Province, Sunnis have also sporadically taken to the streets, and there’s been a surge of dissent online.
The protests—and the resulting government crackdown—have gone largely unnoticed in the United States. While it’s understandable that the turmoil elsewhere in the region has taken precedence, events in Saudi Arabia should be getting more attention given the country’s global significance and the decades of U.S. support for its autocratic ally.
Saudi Arabia is a human rights horror show, especially for women, religious minorities, and migrant workers, who make up a majority of the workforce. Under a guardianship system, men treat women as minors. Girls as young as nine are forced to marry. In 2009, a female victim of gang rape was accused of “adultery,” beaten, and imprisoned. An absolute monarchy and theocracy that has no written penal code, the government prohibits the public exercise of any faith other than Islam, has beheaded people for “sorcery,” and routinely imprisons people without charge or trial and tortures them.
Yet in 2012, according to Human Rights Watch, not once did a U.S. official publicly condemn Saudi Arabia for human rights abuses. American priorities are clear. On June 25th, two days after Saudi police killed Shiite activist Morsi Ali Ibrahim al-Rabah, Secretary of State John Kerry appeared in Jeddah with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal and said that “protecting the stability” of the monarchy and other governments in the region is “the most important” issue.
The stability of the Saudi government enables the United States to pursue its core objectives in the region: accessing oil, checking the influence of Iran, and waging its war against al-Qaida and “associated forces.” American oil companies and arms manufacturers have a huge stake in the U.S-Saudi alliance. The United States is sending Saudi Arabia $60 billion worth of weapons to upgrade its air force—the single largest arms deal in U.S. history.
The countries were trying to seal that deal in 2011 when King Abdullah expressed displeasure over what he regarded as U.S. support for the region’s democratic uprisings. To mollify him, President Obama dispatched both Defense Secretary Robert Gates and, a few days later, National Security Adviser Tom Donilon to Riyadh. U.S. support for the Saudi monarchy is so unceasing it can make U.S. support for other allies, even Israel, seem conditional.
So it’s with the tacit support of the U.S. that the regime is intensifying its crackdown on dissent. The two recent slayings disrupted months of relative calm and brought to at least 20 the number of people shot by the police since the protests began.
Shiite activists aren't the only victims of government persecution. In March, the government arrested a group of Wahabi women protesting the imprisonment of their husbands, prompting an unusual, unified outcry from Shiite and Sunni fundamentalists, as well as liberals. The regime is also going after the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association, one of the country’s few human rights groups. In March, a court sentenced co-founders Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani to 11 and 10 years in prison, respectively. Another member, Mohammed al-Bajadi, is in prison. In a Youtube video posted in June, his mother said she hadn’t heard from him in nine months.
Under questioning from reporters, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland expressed "concern" about the al-Hamid and al-Qahtani sentences. The U.S. Commission on International Freedom also put out a statement. But there has been little else beyond that even as the Saudi government pushes its crackdown on people for speaking out online.
This week, a court sentenced the founder of the Free Saudi Liberal website to seven years in prison and 600 lashes. Twitter, which has more users per capita in Saudi Arabia than in any other country, is a popular platform for dissent. As part of a coordinated rhetorical attack on social media, the head of the religious police said that anyone who uses these sites has “lost this world and his afterlife.”
The anti-government activism, though striking for Saudi Arabia, at this point poses no threat to the regime, which has proven itself adept at neutralizing opposition. U.S. government and corporations are betting that the House of Saud will endure.
At a recent energy conference, Ryan Crocker, former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq, had reassuring words for attendees. “If Saudi Arabia were to become unhinged,” he said, “the consequences are almost impossible to imagine—politically, economically, at every level. But I don’t see it happening.”
This might not be a wise bet. While the regime won’t fall any time soon, it probably won’t be able to preside for many years over a population that’s increasingly young, wired, and unemployed. And if there’s one thing we should’ve learned from ongoing turmoil in the Middle East, it’s that the stability created by repression is illusory.